To change the culture IV: metaethics and storytelling

The trouble is not just that contemporary man reaches incorrect moral conclusions, but that his premises and modes of reasoning are off. From the basic principles of personal autonomy, cosmopolitanism, and the progressive moral hierarchy, evil is bound to follow. I do not believe any genius-level work is needed on the theoretical side to counter this. Our flags have already been planted on the two crucial counter-principles: particular loyalty (stressed by countless conservatives) and given meanings in the body being an ennobling rather than demeaning thing (enunciated most forcefully by Pope John Paul II). The trouble is how to make these principles appreciated, which is presumably a job for the arts.

Literature and drama should not be didactic, but to represent the human condition well they should depict all of the goods in play in the characters’ dilemmas. Think of how much popular entertainment is dominated by two types of stories. The first is good guys vs. bad guys. The second (which is really a subset of the first) is about how the hero discovers that his side is actually evil, and those he feared are actually helpless victims–what I call “we’re the real monsters” stories. The second is particularly tiring–when was the last time a television dragon, witch, or vampire didn’t turn out to be “the real victim”? No matter how often it’s done, screenwriters never seem to tire of “we’re the real monsters”, just as ordinary people never tire of “boy gets girl”. (I suspect this does have something to do with the distinct demographic profile of those in the entertainment business, that the “we” who are monsters really means “you”, but this is just speculation and not relevant to my main point.)

Both of these story forms are fundamentally anti-Christian, because Christianity refuses to let us divide the world into good guys and bad guys–the line cuts through every human heart–and therefore recognizes no senseless oppressors or blameless victims either. It recognizes the validity of group duties while forbidding us to define these ideologically (my group as “the good guys”). The fact that many good-vs-evil stories have been written by Christians in the last century (under the influence of a non-Christian background culture) doesn’t change the fact that they are structurally anti-Christian.

What these stories lack in moral depth they make up for in simplicity. It is easy to hold an audience’s attention with stories of this sort and easy for people to interpret their own lives in light of these stories, which will incline them to self-righteousness and disloyalty.

To counter this, we need alternative story forms. Simply reversing roles, writing ourselves as the good guys, will not work, because the structure of these stories does not match the calls of particular loyalty and the body’s language. Great works of literature are valuable but not precisely what I’m after here. What is needed is a story form, a “formula” or “recipe” to speak of it disparagingly, something that can be reused by storywriters of average ability, something that readers and audiences can use to interpret their own lives. (Of course, the early instantiations of the new forms will have to be of high quality.)

Great novels at least usually don’t have identifiable recipes. But, then, the novel is a modern art form (“form” here referring to the way of telling a story, as opposed to the “story form” discussed above which largely concerns plot), a form poorly suited to myth. The characters and situations are too detailed, too individual. This has helped delay its corruption into Enemy propaganda, that it cannot speak general truth claims without violating its particular form, but it would impede it from expressing our moral vision as much as any other. In the twentieth century, two geniuses tried to recapture the world of myth and fairy tale for modern man: J. R. R. Tolkien and Walt Disney. Both succeeded as artists but failed to revive the world of fairy and myth, because novels and movies cannot bear such content. We may need to revive older art forms or invent new ones.

We want good art but not necessarily great art. We want propaganda, not in assignment of “good guys” and “bad guys”–the very categories must be repudiated–but in fundamental story structure.

5 thoughts on “To change the culture IV: metaethics and storytelling

  1. This is an area in which we can copy the Left, at least in the first stage of a new literature. Irony and satire are weapons of the weak because they exploit incongruities and absurdities in the dominant culture. Irony and satire show that what is supposed to be true is not in fact true, and thus work against the hegemonic culture. It is a commonplace that the Left stopped being funny in the 1970s, and this is because the left had become the hegemonic culture. I’m biased, but I don’t think I have ever seen a funny left wing meme.

    I think it was Paul Fussell who said that irony and satire are naturally right-wing genres. He was discussing Evelyn Waugh and said that irony and satire are most deadly in the hands of an author who believes there are permanent things, because living in denial of these permanent things leads to ironic incongruities.

    I call this a first stage because its purpose is only iconoclastic. A truly new literary form requires a genius, so that can’t be part of our plan. You are right that the public will not swallow crudely didactic stories, but every story that is not utterly nihilistic has characters who come to grief or to relatively happy endings. Every story has attractive and repellant characters. A modest hope for us would be stories in which people that we like are in fact likable and “live happily after.”

    • ” Every story has attractive and repellant characters.”

      Can we really apply that to, say, The Bacchae? Or Oedipus Rex?

      Certainly, we can sympathise with the protagonist, but that is not at all the same thing

      • If Aristotle’s theory of tragedy is true, we must be able to at least sympathize with the protagonist.

  2. We may need to revive older art forms or invent new ones.

    I wonder if it is possible to revive older art forms: I sometimes speculate that the ‘realism’ of modern art forms embodied in the novel and the movie have deadened our appreciation for these older art forms irreparably. The thought of reading (or worse, listening to) Homer would be greeted by most with a trepidation of an impending excruciating boredom. And who reads or listens to poetry in general anymore? This was a common form of entertainment not all that long ago.

    • “The thought of reading (or worse, listening to) Homer would be greeted by most with a trepidation of an impending excruciating boredom”

      What I would not give to hear the music of Homer’s divine diction delivered by a great Rhapsodist, like Ion in the Socratic dialogue!

      It would be like hearing Bach or Chopin play

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